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Living and laughing in the face of a dread disease

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Jean has a laugh so loud and so infectious that you can’t help but laugh with her, and she laughs all the time. When I first met her, she was dealing with cancer, but she was laughing. Stricken with stage 3 melanoma, given disappointing odds of surviving, Jean was awash in laughter, even as she watched her hair go down the drain, even as she injected herself with interferon five days a week for an entire year. Jean is tall and beautiful with big, reddish brown curly hair and smiling eyes. Even if you can only see one eyeball, you can tell that she’s smiling. If you’re on one floor of an office building and she’s on another, you can hear her laugh, and somehow it’s completely endearing. It’d be tricky to test, but I’m sure Jean laughs out loud even when she’s completely alone. Her husband, Kenton, is a sweet, funny man, so bent on empathy that he once jammed a syringe full of interferon into his own skin so he could understand what his wife was going through. Of course, Jean thought this was hilarious, and very heroic. If love and support from another human being have anything to do with whether or not you get to survive cancer, Kent should get a lot of credit. If laughing has anything to do with whether or not you get to survive cancer, Jean has herself to thank. Jean thinks everything is funny, so it’s not a huge compliment if you can get her to start laughing, but still some of her friends try to earn special credit. Usually we get to laughing so hard that other people look over at us. At the swimming pool, we chuckle, chortle, hoot and snort. The more we think about things, the funnier they get and, inevitably, we’ll be laughing so hard that we have to hide our faces because they’re contorting and morphing into strange, freakish shapes. Out shopping, we cackle, giggle, snicker and guffaw. In restaurants, we roar, we convulse, tears rain down us, people stare, we shriek and squeal, we turn red, we laugh until our feet come up off the ground. Sometimes total strangers start laughing, too. When I met Jean seven years ago, her focus was on seeing if she could manage to live. At first, the milestones were small but crucial - taking interferon treatments and still being able to make it to work, finishing a whole year of chemotherapy, her first birthday, first Christmas after finishing treatment, one year being cancer-free, two years, three. Someone told Jean that before she could have a child she had to demonstrate that she was past cancer. The only way to do that is by living. So for quite a while, Jean was forced to swim laps of time, doing long, brave, monotonous strokes through each day toward a bobbing red and white plastic garland reading: Five years cancer-free. Of course, she laughed the whole way. Five years cancer-free. It’s the finish line. It's the big reward that you can’t earn. You either get it or you don’t. In fact, it’s more like the lottery than a reward. You just keep waking up every morning to see if you woke up today or not.

And after a lot of laughing and a lot of pain and a lot of patience, she woke up to the fifth anniversary of having been declared well. Her 14-month-old daughter Delaney was snuggled by her side, having refused to wait for the five-year go-ahead. I wanted to do some big, splashy commemoration because I was so happy that Jean made it through all her laps. But when I’m not laughing I’m a bit of a cynic and I didn’t want to tempt fate. I’ve seen a lot of people die and I got worried that pointing out that Jean was still alive might be enough to remind the fates to come and take her away. So I stayed quiet when celebration was in order. Since then, I had a little brush with cancer of my own, completely minor, nothing to compare with what Jean faced, but it was enough to make me decide that there’s no place for superstition in the way we think about cancer. So taking a cue from Jean, on the day I got my news, instead of crying I kept my lunch date with a dear, witty man I know, aware that it would be good to laugh. Now Jean is engaged in her normal silly life - a demanding job, a humorous husband and a wacky 2-year-old - so she doesn’t even nod at her anniversaries when they come around. She’s focused on transitioning her daughter from infant/toddler day care to preschool, preparing for an impending visit from her inlaws and keeping up with work. Who has time to dwell on past cancer history, no matter how amusing? So now that Jean’s too busy to notice, and now that I’m no longer superstitious, I feel very happy to point out that my darling friend Jean has been cancer-free for six and a half years. You may not be able to tell because you can’t quite hear us from where you are, but really the whole thing is hilarious. --- Barb Guy is a frequent contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.

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